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ATSDR Empowers Community Revitalization Vision

Canoes by the riverNestled in the heart of the Wisconsin dells, the Baraboo, Wisconsin waterfront was once pristine. However, more than a century of uncontrolled heavy industrial and commercial activity has contaminated both soil and groundwater up to five feet deep, and littered the landscape with debris.

A group of Baraboo residents vowed in the late 1990s to reclaim their tarnished landscape. They turned to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) for help.

“Our original goal was to recover the access to the river and open the area for public recreation and private initiative. ATSDR support through their Action Model has been extremely useful” Mike Palm, founder of Citizens for Waterfront Revitalization (CWR), said.

The 12-acre area was “a beautiful stretch of river from Elroy to the Wisconsin River near Madison for canoeing and kayaking. It was also where the Ringling Brothers circus first started in 1884, with the river running through their original fairgrounds,” Ed Geick, Baraboo City Administrator, recalled.

To reclaim the area, the community first needed to make it safe and clean. In early 2008, ATSDR implemented its Action Model, a framework created to help communities that, like Baraboo, are looking to revitalize a potentially contaminated area. As a first step toward this goal, community members established a partnership with several government agencies, creating the Baraboo Development Community (BDC).

Using ATSDR’s Action Model, community members identified 15 different public health challenges. They then considered redevelopment options and evaluated their potential economic, social and health impacts on the community. Finally, after a series of meetings, BDC was able to create 33 ways to measure, or gather indicators of, the public health impact and success of the actions they were about to take.

“As of February 2011, we have relocated 2 [out of 8] facilities originally identified as potential sources of environmental and visual contamination,” Palm said.

Baraboo Business DistrictRichard Manthe, owner of the local coffee shop, The Coffee Bean Connection, said the downtown business district is starting to expand into the waterfront area. “Especially during the summer months, you see a lot of people walking, riding their bikes and enjoying the view and fresh air,” he said. “More and more people are using the area, and I look forward to opening a coffee shop closer to the waterfront.”

Dr. Laurel Berman, the ATSDR specialist involved in the project, recalled that during their initial conversations, community members emphasized the importance of connecting the revitalized area with downtown and the Circus World Museum so people would be able to walk more and drive less. “Being able to walk, ride a bike and exercise more, being in touch with nature and breathing fresh air, are activities with a direct impact on people’s mental and physical health, ” Dr. Berman said.

In many cities and towns across the United States, former industrial or commercial sites lie vacant or underused due to real or perceived contamination. Although much work remains to complete the waterfront revitalization plan, the Baraboo project shows what an organized and informed community can accomplish by working toward a common goal.

The project is an example of the opportunities available through ATSDR’s Brownfield/Land Reuse program to turn these sites into economically sustainable, safe and healthy places for everyone to enjoy.

Baraboo Revitalization Project

You can learn more about the Baraboo Revitalization project by visiting ATSDR’s Brownfield/Land Reuse Initiative Web page at

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